Updated: May 18, 2020
This past week, I was reading The Story of Ruby Bridges with Ava, a story I honestly didn’t know about until I was looking up children’s books related to Martin Luther King, Jr. a couple weeks ago. Ruby Bridges was the first black child to be integrated into her all-white school in New Orleans in 1960 when she was 6 years old. Every day of 1st grade, Ruby entered the school as angry mobs of white people yelled horrible things at her – adults terrorizing a little girl simply because she was black.
After we finished reading, Ava looked at me and asked why people don’t yell at her and say mean things to her like they did to Ruby. The simple answer to that is because her skin is white. After I told her this, she innocently said, “That doesn’t happen in our country anymore, right?” My answer could have been, ”No, that doesn’t happen anymore,” and we could have moved on. To be honest, there’s a desire to shelter my kids from knowing the ugly realities that take place in our world.
But I had to tell her the truth. I had to tell her that while those laws of segregation do not exist anymore, there is still a system of racism in place, and there are still people who treat others badly because of the color of their skin or where they come from. My sweet girl said, “If I hear someone saying those mean things to someone else, I’m going to tell them, ‘Don’t say that. That’s not kind. You should treat everyone nice even if they look different than you.’” I pray that that is true. I pray that Ava will be someone who stands up for what is right and speaks up on behalf of others. Because the reality is that her skin is white, and so she could get by with never having to accept that racism still exists.
The thing about being white is that we could avoid these conversations about race. I could tell my kids that the issues that Dr. King and so many other civil rights activists fought against are just a thing of the past – that we live in a different time where that kind of prejudice and hatred doesn’t exist anymore. And they could probably go through life believing that is true.
The thing about being white is that I don’t have to have conversations with my kids about how to survive a routine traffic stop. The thought would never cross my mind or theirs that a failure to yield could end in their death.
The thing about being white is that people don’t feel intimidated or uneasy by my presence. They don’t wonder if I’m a terrorist. They don’t feel the need to lock their doors or cross the street to avoid me just in case I’m a threat.
The thing about being white is that no one has ever questioned where I’m really from or if I belong here. I’ve never been told to learn the language or to go back to where I came from.
The thing about being white is that I never have to fear that at any moment my family or I could be ripped from our homes and sent to a land we either do not know or one that haunts us with memories of terror.
The thing about being white is that I could choose to surround myself and my family with only people who look just like us. We could live in a neighborhood, go to schools and a church, and shop at stores where the overwhelming majority of people have the same color skin as us. We could spend our lives never knowing what it is to be in the minority, never having to adjust to the cultural norms of others, never having to learn another language, never feeling like we are outsiders in the places we live our lives.
The thing about being white is that I could denounce racism while failing to be honest about the ways that I have been complicit. I could ignore the lies that I’ve bought into and the times that I have feared someone who walked past me simply because of the color of their skin or the way they were dressed. I could vote for policies that support people who look like me but are detrimental to those who don’t and never realize the consequences.
But the thing about being Christian is that I serve a God who chose to enter into our suffering. He did not hold onto his rights and entitlements but instead gave up his comforts and all that he deserved in order to immerse himself into our lives. He did not leave us to fend for ourselves because our issues didn’t affect him or because he thought it was our fault for getting ourselves into this mess in the first place. I serve a God who repeatedly heard his people’s cries and responded with mercy and rescued them. I serve a God who chose to honor people like the Samaritans, who were despised because of where they came from, and yet he used them as an example of what it means to be righteous.
Because of this, I will choose to immerse myself into communities of people who look different than me. I will choose to listen to the stories and perspectives of people of color and believe that they are true. I will take the time to learn about how different groups of people are affected by policies and laws. I will show up to events that support the causes of immigrants and people of color and encourage my elected officials to vote in ways that do the same. I will teach my children about the ugly realities of this world while inviting them to participate in the beautiful ministry of reconciliation into which God has called us. I will admit that there is a privilege that I possess because my skin is white and know that admitting that privilege does not negate any of my struggles or hard work. I will use that privilege to uphold the dignity and voices of people of color because I recognize that we are all made in the image of the same God, who loves us all deeply.
Therefore, if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!”
– Philippians 2:1-8
Resources that have been helpful to me in learning about the racial divide in our country…
America’s Original Sin, by Jim Wallis
White Awake, by Daniel Hill
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander
Black and White: Racism in America, by The Liturgists Podcast
13th, Netflix documentary directed by Ava DuVernay
Books I’m reading with my kids…
The Story of Ruby Bridges, by Robert Coles
Martin’s Big Words, by Doreen Rappaport